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What the UK must do to win on AI, according to techUK and the trades unions

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton September 26, 2023
Summary:
A team-up of industry and unions is urging government action on AI.

techUK
Kate Bell

News that the UK Government’s AI Summit is to be held at computing touchstone Bletchley Park on 1-2 November has been galvanizing debate on AI regulation, safety, and ethics this month. His Majesty the King will host tech leaders and politicians at the event.

However, organizations such as techUK and new ally the Trades Union Congress (TUC) are already working behind the scenes to inform the debate. They urge action on the steps needed to ensure that the UK can seize the advantages of AI, and minimize the risks.

One challenge is that the technology moves so fast that it is hard to bottle that lightning and examine it, let alone draft future-proofed policies. After all, barely a day goes by without a new AI story breaking. For example, only yesterday:

  • Amazon announced it is taking on Microsoft and OpenAI with a $4 billion stake in San Francisco start-up Anthropic, whose Claude AI is a rival to ChatGPT
  • Getty Images unveiled a generative AI trained solely on its own licensed images
  • Oracle launched generative AI services for healthcare
  • OpenAI CEO Sam Altman warned against the industry’s preference for under-regulation
  • The UK Parliament heard that the country’s procurement processes are too slow to add AI to national defence capabilities (doubtless that applies to other functions too)
  • Middle-class grocery shibboleth Waitrose revealed it is using AI to fine-tune recipes
  • Spotify is road-testing AI that translates podcasters’ voices into other languages
  • It was revealed there are 73,000 searches a month for AI relationship bots, mainly ‘AI girlfriends’, according to website AI Product Reviews
  • Investors Chronicle warned that, despite AI’s huge promise, GPUs remain the only part of the technology’s supply chain that has seen a revenue uplift (proving diginomica’s point that the AI boom to date has largely been individuals using free tools as shadow IT)
  • And Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – fresh from scrapping climate pledges (thus making the UK less attractive to innovators) – said he was worried that AI might lead to more advanced weapons than humans can control. 

And that was just Monday!

So, how can the UK reap the whirlwind of AI – via the nation’s real strengths in technology and venture capital – while avoiding the risks of soaring unemployment, skills gaps, generational apocalypse, and angry Terminators that doom-mongers have been warning us about for decades?

That was the question for industry body techUK this week. The organization has produced a forward-looking, 72-page report, entitled ‘Making AI Work for Britain’, launched in London yesterday. 

In his introduction, Deputy CEO Antony Walker said:

Amidst rapid developments in AI, we must remember that none of the employment outcomes related to technology are pre-determined and all will be dependent on the decisions made by individuals, companies, and governments over the months and years ahead. 

However, we can and must take the opportunity to prepare for and shape the impact of AI on work and jobs. Policymakers should look at the impact of AI on the labour market as an opportunity rather than a threat, and develop policy responses to harness its power in an increasingly AI-powered global economy.

He added:

Like all waves of technological innovation, AI will drive significant change to jobs and employment. However, the policy levers that government will need to use, are not new or novel. 

Improving skills and accelerating technology adoption are well established mechanisms for adapting to technological change. However, the pace and scale of AI innovation suggests that governments will need to scale-up its action on skills and digital adoption to ensure that the growth and productivity benefits are shared as widely as possible across the UK.

TUC

Unusually for techUK, the keynote speaker at the launch was not some AI luminary, but rather Kate Bell, Assistant General Secretary for the TUC. Bell took up her role as recently as last December, as ChatGPT and other tools were booming. Since then, the UK’s union federation has done a respectable, pragmatic job of addressing the skills and employment challenges of AI, via conferences, publications, and (this month) the foundation of an AI Taskforce. 

Throughout, the TUC’s aim has not been to see the technology in Luddite terms, but to engage with innovators, policymakers, and organizations, pointing out the strategic and operational steps necessary to make sure that everyone in society benefits, including the workforce. 

In this, it shares an aim with techUK’s report. In her speech, Bell set out four obstacles that, she believes, prevent the UK from capitalizing on its undoubted strengths and transforming the world of work for the better:

  • a lack of essential business investment
  • poor investment in workforce skills (a problem that has existed for decades)
  • UK labor market regulation
  • a dearth of institutions via which workers, businesses, and government can negotiate ways for AI to be used responsibly. 

The latter is a critical point: commentators often urge the need for redress in cases where AI’s decisions seem unfair, incorrect, biased, or simply opaque, but redress via whom or what?  Bell added:

Understanding a shift in the types of jobs people do and the skills they need as a result of tech/AI adoption needs to be explored as part of a more strategic conversation around Industrial Strategy.

Growth 

At this point, it’s worth noting that the UK had a coherent, forward-looking, tech-focused Industrial Strategy until former PM Boris Johnson scrapped it – almost certainly because it was the work of his immediate Conservative predecessors. Since then, the vague ‘Plan for Growth’ that replaced it has not delivered on its own promise. 

But the good news is that AI could provide a big chunk of longed-for growth, according to techUK. Its report says:

Research commissioned by Google and undertaken by Public First on the potential impact of AI on the UK economy estimates that AI tools could create over £400 billion in value for the UK economy by 2030, the equivalent to an annual growth rate of 2.6%. 

The report notes that generative AI could save the average worker in the UK over 100 hours a year, which would be the single biggest improvement to worker productivity since the arrival of Google Search. 

Generative AI is moving us from the era of machine learning into the age of machine intelligence. Through its ability to generate new content, complete tasks, and leverage data more efficiently, and enable workers to work hand-in-hand with powerful machines, AI will be a central component of the future economy.”

But there are caveats, warns the organization. Its report goes further than Bell’s keynote, by identifying nine urgent must-do’s for the UK’s policymakers. To seize the day on AI, the government must:

  • Provide clarity for individuals and businesses on how the law applies to the use of AI at work, including obligations and rights across existing data protection, equality, and health and safety legislation. 
  • Help businesses invest in training their staff. For example, by reforming the Apprenticeship Levy into a broader Apprenticeships and Skills Levy, and investing in functional, management and digital skills. 
  • Strengthen and spotlight pathways into digital and AI jobs. For example, by creating a Digital Skills Toolkit 2.0, while encouraging collaboration between academia and industry by creating a Tech Industry Placement Scheme to connect students with UK tech businesses. 
  • Champion AI-enabled flexible work across the economy, by legislating for a compulsory right to request flexible or remote working from day one. (Ideologically, this may clash with the government’s recent message of returning to office desks.)
  • Support SMB adoption of productivity-boosting technologies, by establishing a Digital Growth Fund, reallocating unspent money from Help to Grow: Digital. The fund should also incentivise the adoption of enabling digital infrastructure and hardware.
  • Provide support for authorities to ensure that the benefits of tech transformation are felt across the UK. The government should also work directly with local authorities and devolved governments, to deliver digital skills programmes that target under-skilled and under-represented groups.
  • Anticipate changes in the labor market to align skills, training, and migration and remain responsive to tech-powered changes. For example, by effectively resourcing and staffing the new Central Function, put forward in the UK Government’s recent white paper, to build up forecasting capabilities. The Government should also launch an independent commission on the impact of automation and emerging technologies on the UK’s nations and regions, harnessing national and international expertise. 
  • Create a culture of lifelong learning through a flexible and expansive Lifelong Learning Entitlement. Provision should be extended to Level 7 postgraduate courses, and the upper age limit should be abolished. (Organizations have been urging this since the 1990s.)
  • Support SMB adoption of productivity-boosting technologies by establishing a collaborative approach to the regulatory environment for AI. For example, by creating a forum that brings together all stakeholders to enable a sustained public debate on new and evolving issues.

My take

Good stuff, sincerely meant and presented in good faith. However, many of these are the types of measures that organizations have been urging since the earliest days of e-commerce in the mid-1990s. I myself was involved in a UK tech skills forum in 2001, which presented a plan of action – from industry leaders and tech organizations – to 10 Downing Street. It wasn’t even acknowledged. 

As for the TUC, its recent work in this field is positive, helpful, and engaging. The problem is that the current Brexit Britain administration, even while it argues amongst itself, appears to be driven more by ideology than pragmatism, and that ideology overlooks the unions. Hopefully, No 10 will make an exception for the TUC’s AI Taskforce.

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